I’ve been sick for a few days with a nasty head cold. Sitting in bed with the dogs and my iPad for company, I’ve been thinking about a question readers sometimes ask me: why do so many people die in your books?
In truth, not that many people die in my books, but there are definitely a few, and I suppose for romance the number is a bit surprising. The reasons for their deaths are twofold: 1. death can be a useful literary device; and 2. people died in Victorian times. A lot of people.
Although the mortality rate fell during the course of the Victorian era (deaths per 1,000 people per year in England and Wales fell from 21.9 from 1848–54 to 17 in 1901, compared to just over 9 in 2015), sickness and death were regular visitors to Victorian communities, and overall, mortality rates were higher for women than men. The most common cause of death: tuberculosis, also known as consumption, which caused about 25% of all deaths during this time period. Other common diseases were cholera, influenza, smallpox, typhus, typhoid (the disease thought to have killed Prince Albert), scarlet fever, and syphilis.
In 1858, raw sewage flowed in the Thames, the smell so intolerable it was feared the stench alone would kill Members of Parliament working in their chambers alongside the river. London and other cities, largely because of these conditions, were far less healthful than the country, and the poor were impacted in greater numbers than the middle and upper classes.
Although vaccination for smallpox became available in the 18th century, there were few treatments available for any of these diseases until the discovery and widespread use of antibiotics in the 20th century. Cholera, a waterborne disease, killed over 53,000 in 1849. Scarlet fever killed more than 20,000 in 1840. Those who sickened but did not die in a given outbreak were left weakened and susceptible to being carried off by the next illness, which often occurred at nearly the same time as the first outbreak.
It is hard now to comprehend the rates at which people died in the Victorian era. My cold is making me miserable but it’s unlikely to carry me off, and even if I do get very sick, two of the best hospitals in the country are less than five miles away. The average Victorian, no matter what class, could not say the same.
I’ve touched on the Victorian obsession with death in a previous post, and when you see the high mortality rates of the period, it’s slightly more understandable. Although I don’t think anything really justifies creepy post-mortem photography.
Recently I went to a DAR meeting (Yes, that is Daughters of the American Revolution, and I, with my distinctly un-blue blood, am a member). The wonderful speaker was from the Summit County Historical Society, and her presentation was on the Victorian Woman. She brought all kinds of artifacts from the Victorian era in the U.S., including clothing, underclothing, shoes, books, a calling card case, a coffee grinder, etc. At one point she described mourning customs, which were ridiculously excessive, particularly for women. The Victorians, led by mourner-in-chief, Queen Victoria, elevated mourning to an art form. Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert died in 1861, plunging her into a mourning period that lasted half a century. Cassell’s Household Guide, published in 1869, provides tremendous detail regarding funerals and mourning customs, in five separate sections organized in no discernible manner, sandwiched between instructions for making a pincushion, foot-gear, different types of butter, a recipe for salting a herring, and a chapter entitled “Animals Kept for Pleasure and Profit–The Horse.” The guide also includes the costs of burial vaults and plots, which ranged from the exorbitant £49 7s. 6d. for a family vault at Highgate Cemetery, to 6s. 8d. for a single grave in unconsecrated, third class ground. Relatives of the deceased sent invitations to funerals, and if the family was particularly wealthy they were also expected to send “mourning coaches” to collect the invitees. Families were expected to use black-edged mourning stationery for correspondence during the entire period of mourning. Fortunately, Cassell’s had recommendations on where to purchase such things: “While on the subject of mourning stationery, we may mention that every kind of such articles as may be required, may be obtained of the best quality and at the lowest prices from Messrs. Terry, Stoneman, and Co., the wholesale, retail, and manufacturing stationers of Hatton Garden.”
When Cassell’s was written in 1869, women were not advised to attend funerals: “It sometimes happens among the poorer classes that the female relatives attend the funeral; but this custom is by no means to be recommended, since in these cases it but too frequently happens that, being unable to restrain their emotions, they interrupt and destroy the solemnity of the ceremony with their sobs, and even by fainting.” By the 1880s, it was customary for women to attend funerals of relatives, “if disposed to do so.”
Rules for mourning apparel were complicated; an 1888 book entitled Manners and Rules of Good Society, or, Solecisms to be Avoided, has an entire chapter devoted to the subject. It includes rules for everyone from spouses (two years) to second cousins (three weeks, optional) and contemporaries. For example, it says,
The Regulation Period for a Widow’s Mourning is two years; of this period crape should be worn for one year and nine months, for the first twelve months the dress should be entirely covered with crape, for the remaining nine months it should be trimmed with crape, heavily so the first six months, and considerably less the remaining three; during the last three months black without crape should be worn. After the two years two months half-mourning is prescribed, but many people prefer to continue wearing black without crape in lieu of half- mourning. The widow’s cap should be worn for a year and a day. Lawn cuffs and collars should be worn during the crape period. After a year and nine months jet trimming may be worn.
The rules for widowers were rather simpler. They were expected to wear black during the mourning period, but they could enter society sooner than the customary year widows were required to wait. They had to wear black wore black hat bands of different widths, depending upon the degree of the relationship–a man mourning his wife, for example, was expected to wear a hat band seven inches wide. (Fortunately, it was also the era of the tall top hat.)
Such rules seem excessive to us, but are on some level understandable, I think. Customs ventured into the truly bizarre, however, with the practices of post-mortem photography and hair jewelry. For centuries people have painted pictures of the dead, of course, but some families in the Victorian era actually posed their deceased loved ones as if they were alive–propping them up or painting eyeballs on closed lids. There’s a great article on one of my favorite sites for the strange and bizarre,io9.com, featuring several photos.
The speaker at the meeting I mentioned at the start of this absurdly long post showed several examples of hair jewelry, which was very popular both in England and America in the late 19th century. Strands of a loved one’s hair were included in a locket or a ring, and in more extreme examples, braided into elaborate designs. Google “Victorian hair jewelry” and you’ll see more of it than you ever wanted to see. You can even buy some, if you’re so inclined, on eBay.
I started this post a few months ago, but I didn’t finish it until a couple of days ago. It seems fitting, and maybe a bit cathartic (okay, maybe a lot), that I should post it now. On January 13, my father passed away at the age of 73. We were estranged for nearly half my life, but thankfully we made our peace in the last few years. He had a completely different life without me, spending more than 25 years in California with his wife, Barb, and her son, whom I still haven’t met. My sister, who has always been a more forgiving and attentive daughter than I, was much closer to him, and traveled to California to be with Barb after his death. Clearing out his home office, she said, gave her a more complete picture of who he was–utterly devoted to his wife, and more creative and clever than I ever gave him credit for. I’m sorry for that, sorry I didn’t know him better, and that he didn’t know me better. But a life filled with regrets wouldn’t be a tribute to either one of us, so instead I will remember the little things: he was a talented graphic artist, he tickled my feet so often when I was little that they aren’t ticklish any more (I have no idea if there’s really a connection between the two, but I like to think so), he made a bizarre but surprisingly tasty brie and pear omelette, he used to call blueberry syrup “slueberry burp,” he loved dogs and Fleetwood Mac, he taught me to whistle and to play darts, and when I look in the mirror I see his eyes looking back at me.